Pisky-led? Piskies and Cornish difference

Pixies or piskies are little people, about knee-high. They live in the otherworld and are usually invisible to humans. But if you look very carefully you might just spot them cavorting around in circles on a remote moor at the dead of night. Sometimes they will help farmers and others with their chores; sometimes they lead people astray, into bogs or even down mine shafts.

Illustration from Botterel’s book of folk tales, published in 1873. These are knockers, fairies who lived in the mines

There were many tales of pixies (or piskies) in the nineteenth century. They were temperamental denizens of the otherworld. They might help folk gather grain or give humans delicious gifts of food. But equally they could punish them for spying on their antics or just have fun playing malicious jokes on the big people.

Pisky legends were common to both Cornwall and Devon in the 1800s and early 1900s, when many such stories were collected. One collector – Robert Hunt – claimed that Cornish pixies were ‘darker’ than those of Devon, more mischievous, generally naughtier. A recent article by Ronald James, Nevada-based expert on Cornish folklore, investigates pixy legends in Cornwall. He finds that, although such tales have a common bedrock, there were subtle differences in their narratives. In particular, tales that were collected in the far west of Cornwall showed significant differences from those from Devon.

This leads him to conclude that there was little free interchange of such narratives up and down the south-western peninsula. This he explains by the geographical isolation of west Cornwall and also its legacy of linguistic difference.

For more on this article see my summary here.

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